Post-Cold War nuclear jitters

Current events on the Korean Peninsula compel reflection on the American political scientist John J Mearsheimer’s 1990 essay ‘Why We Will Soon Miss The Cold War,’ the key contention of which was that “we may wake up one day lamenting the loss of the order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations.” Those of us who lived through the latter two decades or so of the Cold War can hardly pretend not to be now fully awake to the stark changes in the global nuclear ‘order.’

We had previously been thought to understand that part of the very definition of the Cold War was that nuclear weapons were synonymous with the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although never used, nuclear weapons were central to the conflict between the two states that provided leadership of the two ideological blocs, their role being to serve as a mutual deterrent to threats from one side or the other. Mearsheimer contended at the time that the “theory of peace” that underpinned assessments of the significance of the end of the Cold War overlooked the fact that the end of East-West nuclear rivalry also meant that the two superpowers were no longer “serving to anchor rival alliances of clearly inferior powers.”

Less than a quarter of a century after the publication of Mearsheimer’s essay there is evidence that some of his “inferior states,” (and terrorist groups) seriously embrace nuclear ambitions; that the absence of the bipolarity and its implied prohibition of ownership of nuclear weapons outside the United States and the Soviet Union has significantly broadened access to weapons of mass destruction. In a sense the end of the Colds War may, ironically, have placed us on a gradual slope towards conditions of unprecedented and dangerous nuclear proliferation.
This is not just some alarmist catchphrase. China, Israel, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea are among those one-time “inferior states” that are now known either to possess nuclear weapons or are actively pursuing acquisition. Another group of countries that includes South Korea and Japan are believed to possess the technology that equips them to possess nuclear weapons in a relatively short period.

What the current tensions on the Korean Peninsula arising out of the ongoing nuclear ‘noises’ inside North Korea have done is to compel the international community to re-evaluate the threat that nuclear weapons pose to international peace and security in the post-Cold War era. The emergence of Iran and North Korea, particularly, as nuclear or likely near-nuclear states provides a sobering reminder that the ‘protection’ from proliferation which the Cold War had provided has now been effectively removed and that other states outside the small elite grouping described as superpowers now possess or may be close to possessing a nuclear capacity. More than that, the nuclear ambitions of states like Iran and North Korea are bound to provide other states with justification to pursue nuclear programmes of their own. South Korea and Japan, for example, may feel – America’s commitment to protecting its allies, notwithstanding – that their most appropriate response to nuclear developments in Pyongyang would be to pursue nuclear programmes of their own while it would be tough for Washington to persuade Israel to cease its pursuit of nuclear ambitions as long as Iran continues to explore nuclear options of its own.

The ‘rules of the game’ have changed in a more significant manner than we might imagine. During the Cold War the use of nuclear weapons was more or less cancelled out by the tacit acceptance by both the USA and the USSR that deployment was prohibited by the constraint of mutually assured destruction. What the current tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the noises of war in the region suggest is that the expanded ownership of nuclear weapons to include countries like North Korea has given rise to a new culture of threats and brinkmanship that is less mindful of just where the brink might be.

Weak and often ineffective as it has been, the United Nations played a critical role in the ‘management’ of nuclear weapons during the Cold War era in so far as it provided, through the Security Council, a forum which not only brought both superpowers together but also accorded them the status of first among equals by acknowledging their role as nuclear powers. The contemporary nuclear equation is different in at least two significant ways. First, North Korea – and to a lesser extent, Iran ‒ clearly have not been persuaded of the virtues of buying into UN-brokered anti-proliferation agreements and will not, therefore, be deterred in their pursuit of nuclear weapons by the current conventions. The second point is that its seeming limited nuclear capability aside North Korea is, in other significant respects, an underdeveloped country that continues to depend heavily on international aid, particularly, these days, from China and on those grounds does not – based on the Cold War formula – qualify to have the title of nuclear power bestowed upon it.

The case for a far more dangerous post-Cold War international environment as far as the possession and likely use of nuclear weapons is concerned becomes even more apparent when we consider what is widely believed to be the pursuit of access to such weapons by so-called terrorist organizations which, given the fact that these function outside the confines of international organization, are not subject to the rules that govern the behaviour of legitimate states, however intolerable the behaviour of some of those states may sometimes be. The absence of rules governing relations between those terrorist organizations and, firstly, the UN and its specialized agencies and, secondly, states, seriously inhibits the ability of the international community to deter their pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The reasons why the end of the Cold War has not deterred the quest to acquire nuclear capacity are not always readily apparent though anti-US aspirants to nuclear status have made arguments that have to do with what they regard as their “inalienable right” to pursue such ambitions. In the case of North Korea, since it understands that its use of nuclear weapons will redound to its detriment, we must assume that its noises amount to something other than a desire to precipitate a nuclear war. Arguably, Pyongyang’s behaviour may be a gambit designed to secure its own recognition as a nuclear power though one does not see Washington backing away from Foreign Secretary John Kerry’s pronouncement that such recognition is not forthcoming. That having been said the Kim regime may well be satisfied with some lesser but yet significant concession which, conceivably, may have to do with support for its long-ailing economy.

All that having been said North Korea’s threat – the first of its kind in the post Cold War era – to deploy nuclear weapons sets a precedent that awakens the international community to Mersheimer’s unpalatable but realistic post-Cold War global reality. Truth be told we really have no assurances that the current developments on the Korean peninsula will not be repeated in the future, there and elsewhere, triggering the creation of a culture of nuclear blackmail that will create new and daunting challenges for a system of international organization that has already lost a great deal of its currency.

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